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Pioneering Cleanup at Ports

March 17, 2003

The 2,500 cargo ships that chug into the Port of Los Angeles each year generate revenue of $289 million for the region as well as pride for Wilmington, San Pedro and other nearby neighborhoods. Together, the adjacent Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are the largest shipping complex in the nation -- and the region's biggest source of diesel fumes and other pollutants.

This month, port officials and local residents ended a long standoff with a legal settlement. The agreement promises not only to cut the brown haze that hovers over the harbor but also to open the door for more ships to dock. Cleaner air, more jobs and more money to city coffers? Sounds like a formula for other ports as well.

With ships arriving continually, it's easy to see why diesel pollution has become so bad. Ship engines sometimes idle for days while 16-story-high cranes stack cargo containers into their hulls or lift them onto the docks. Some 35,000 trucks bring this cargo to and from the ports, snaking through traffic jams to the waterfront.

A single ship at berth can generate as much as one ton of smog-causing nitrogen oxides each day, and almost 100 pounds of tiny dust particles spew from diesel engines to settle in lungs. Yet federal rules that cut truck emissions don't take effect until 2007 and apply only to new rigs, and the U.S. has never restricted emissions from international ships in American ports and has yet to ratify a 1978 treaty setting worldwide standards.

So two years ago when the city decided to lease a new terminal it built to China Shipping Holding Co., making room for 260 more ships each year, neighbors said "enough." Along with the Natural Resources Defense Council, they sued the port and the city to keep the terminal from opening and to clean up their community.

With last week's pact, everyone benefits. China Shipping gets to open its terminal, bringing more ships and jobs to the area. At the same time, the city will spend $20 million over four years to cut air pollution from ships, using methods such as making ships docked at China Shipping's terminal plug into the city's electric grid instead of running their diesel engines. Truckers can tap into a $10-million fund to help pay for retrofitting their rigs or purchasing cleaner-running new ones. Wilmington and San Pedro residents will get $20 million for new parks and landscaping to spruce up scruffy neighborhoods.

The city will finance these improvements by allocating $60 million from the lease payments and other fees China Shipping will pay to use the terminal, cutting the city's projected 12% return over 25 years to a still-hefty 8%. This deal is the first of its kind in the nation. It shouldn't be the last.

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